Japan Unveils a Robot Baby Amid Plummeting Birth Rates

The Kirobi Mini blinks its eyes and speaks like a baby, but one expert believes it’s a terrifying harbinger of things to come.

Oct 5 2016, 1:02pm

Photo by Jelena Jojic Tomic via Stocksy

"Say hello to Toyota's little robot," breathes the press release announcing the arrival of the Kirobo Mini. Has any technology launch been quite so creepy?

Described in the marketing materials as a "cute and companionable... communication partner", you or I might regard the Korobi Mini as a robot-shaped baby substitute. Or, an incredibly advanced Tamagotchi for 21st century childless couples.

The Kirobo Mini, a grapefruit-sized robot that blinks and whispers in a babyish high pitch, can hold a conversation, make hand gestures, and respond to human emotions. The device—which retails at $392—is being positioned by the Japanese technology giant as a way to "pursue [a] society where a new form of affection similar between that of humans and cars can be nurtured." In essence, the Kirobo Mini offers companionship, even love, for its owners—a message underscored by the name of the initiative: the Toyota Heart Project.

Robotics have been positioned as the solution to Japan's demographic shifts for some time now. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and marriage rates have consistently fallen since the 1980s. In response to labor shortages occasioned by an ageing population, robotics are heralded as the answer, whether it's hotels staffed entirely by humanoids or a "robot revolution" aimed at reversing Japan's economic slump.

Chief engineer Fuminori Kataoka described the Kirobo Mini in infantile language to the Guardian: "He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby which hasn't fully developed the skills to balance itself." He explains, "this vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection."

Read more: 'There Was a Stranger in My Own House': Is the Sharing Economy Safe for Women?

So-called "companion robots" have become the latest trend in robotics. Recent years have seen the launch of the Paro, a "healing pet" designed to help dementia sufferers and the Jibo, the "social robot" slash personal assistant. The Kirobo Mini could be the solution to alleviate loneliness for many childless adults. However, some analysts feel there is cause for concern.

"This is part of what I would term 'mechanical sociality'", argues Dr Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University. "It's this idea that human beings—their needs and wants and desires—are very mechanical and can be addressed in mechanical ways. But robotics can't solve the fundamental problem, which is how human beings relate to each other."

Image via Toyota PR

I put it to Richardson that robots can serve a practical function—the Paro, for instance, aims to assist dementia sufferers in Japan, which struggles with a shortage of carers for the elderly. After all, Japan's demographic shifts aren't occasioned by technology, but by social factors—why not innovate in response?

"The idea of this technological solution [to Japan's social problems] starts from the wrong place, because it's predicated in an instrumental view of relationships," Dr. Richardson says. "If all relationships must serve an instrumental function, and you create an instrument to have a relationship with, then you're inside of that framework. We see this idea that our relations are being instrumentalized in technology, whether it's paying for a friend or having a sugar daddy."

Read more: This 'Uber for Escorts' App Aims to Revamp Sex Work

Richardson is critical of robotics' capacity to help those with Alzheimer's Disease or dementia. "It's a narrative promoted by roboticists, but the communities they're trialing this technology in are marginalized and powerless. They have Alzheimer's; they're elderly. Their capacity to experience what they're feeling is radically diminished."

Ultimately, she argues, a teeny-tiny robot friend is a poor substitute for human affection or even love, and a symbol of capitalism at its most extreme. "We live in a world which prioritizes property relations, where there are huge inequalities between classes, race and genders," she explains. "And if you value property above people you start to represent people as property. Relationships become instrumental, and calculating."

"So we're now in this bizarre situation where people are saying that property—robotics—can become your friend. It can become your lover; your substitute child. It's the most extreme of neoliberalism you could ever arrive at."

She pauses, then adds grimly: "It's a world without human relations. It goes that deep."